18 October 2009

Nefertiti Overshadowed

The New York Times reported today that Zahi Hawass has begun an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the removal of the Nefertiti bust from Egypt in 1913. If the bust is deemed to have been removed illegally, Hawass will officially request its return to Egypt. The controversy surrounding the bust's removal is not a new one, and details of the circumstances have been revealed in recent editions of the journal KMT. The artifact was excavated in December of 1912 by a German archaeological expedition working at the site of el-Amarna. At the time, excavated antiquities were subject to a "division of finds" policy, by which a representative of the Egyptian antiquities organization would select those artifacts to be kept in Egypt, and the rest would be awarded to the foreign institution that sponsored the dig. The Nefertiti bust was removed from Egypt in the context of this division of finds. I have nothing new to add to this much-discussed topic; if the information in KMT is reliable, then it would appear that there was fault on both sides. The discoverer of the bust, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, very likely glossed over the significance of the find when the government inspector came to the site in early 1913 - Borchardt may even have visually obscured the true quality of the bust. On the other hand, the inspector Gustave Lefebvre (in 1913, the Department of Antiquities [now the SCA] was still under French control) failed to recognize the value of the bust and did not claim it for Egypt.

One thing I will comment on, however, is that I find one aspect of the current German response potentially disingenuous: "...because it [the bust] is so fragile, I am not sure the statue can even be flown." During WWII, the Nefertiti bust, along with thousands of other artifacts from German museums, was packed up and shipped to a secure location in case of Allied bombing of German cities. Nefertiti survived the war inside a packing crate in a potash mine in central Germany. The bust also survived a trip to a collection point at Wiesbaden after the war, and then the return journey to Berlin in 1955. To say now that a flight to Egypt is impossible...well, it would certainly be a smoother ride than in the back of a truck through the German countryside. Perhaps the bust is more fragile now than at the time of its last trip in 1955, but considering that the Germans tout the exemplary conditions under which it has been displayed, one would hope that any further degredation after 1955 would have been minimal.

What grabbed my attention in the article, more than the Nefertiti bust controversy, was the mention of Farouk Hosni's failed bid to become the new Director General of UNESCO. His scandalous remark at a meeting of the Egyptian parliament overshadowed, for me, the Nefertiti debate. In case you haven't heard it: "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt." This seems to have been something of an off-the-cuff remark, rather than an official statement. Nevertheless, should the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization be someone whose first thought goes to book-burning when confronted with questions about "the other"? I am not concerned with who "the other" is in a situation such as this - the world is full of opposing sides. I'm concerned with the reaction. Book burning is an anathema. It is a violation of education, of science, of culture. In other words, everthing that UNESCO protects. Can you find copies of Mein Kampf in American university libraries? Certainly, and in multiple versions. So too can you find The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion, as well as the works of Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and the collected speeches of Osama Bin Laden.

Zahi Hawass may very well have a legitimate claim for the return of Nefertiti to the Egyptian Museum. Perhaps Egypt should also focus on bulking up its libraries, as well as its museums?

12 October 2009

Ajda Pekkan Plays Hasankeyf

(Doğa Derneği)

Turkish pop star Ajda Pekkan played Hasankeyf last week, drawing 10,000 fans as part of Hürriyet newspaper’s “Freedom Train” – a project to raise awareness of human rights issues among children and women in southeast Turkey. (Video of the show is here, embedding disabled for some reason). Hasankeyf is a dramatic cliffside town on the Tigris River, full of magnificent medieval ruins. It would be largely flooded by the proposed Ilisu Dam, which has recently been denied funding (again) by European governments. Hürriyet reported:
Thousands flooded in to Hasankeyf from neighboring districts such as Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır to watch a historic performance by superstar Ajda Pekkan and supporting rock band Yüksek Sadakat. “It is a great pleasure to be here with you in this unique concert at such a historic and beautiful location. We must not allow the 12,000 years worth of history that sits in this location to be usurped by a dam,” Pekkan said at the opening of the concert. Quoting one of her songs “I was born a free person I will leave a free person,” Pekkan told the crowd that Hasankeyf must live freely as well. “Even when we leave this location tomorrow we will continue to take responsibility for this area,” Pekkan said.
The Ilisu project calls for damming the Tigris River and building a 1,200-megawatt power station as part of a $32 billion irrigation plan for impoverished provinces in Turkey’s southeast. Turkey planned to relocate antiquities and monuments from Hasankeyf, the region’s only surviving city built during the Middle Ages, with roots dating to the Assyrians. Critics of the project, which would create a 300-square-kilometer lake, include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. The dam would destroy 400 square kilometers of river habitat that includes species such as the Euphrates soft-shell turtle.
This trailer for Sakae Ishikawa's "Life in Limbo" offers a glimpse of the city:

As Pekkan notes, Hasankeyf is at the eye of a storm of environmental, human rights, and historic preservation activism, now led by the the Doğa Association, Turkey’s major environmental NGO.
It’s a complicated situation for archaeologists. In the past two decades a series of dams have built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey under the auspices of the Southeast Anatolia Project. Most of the rivers' length is now dammed. Extensive salvage surveys and excavations1 have revealed hundreds of sites and recovered stunning works such as the famous Zeugma mosaics.

A mosaic at Zeugma on the Euphrates. Much of the site is now flooded by the Birecik Dam (Photo NOVA)

However, thousands more sites from the river valleys that were the “cradle of civilization” from have gone underwater unrecorded and unstudied. A couple years back I published a study of the politics of archaeology in Turkey’s large dam projects, and concluded that archaeology was used as a political football by both dam proponents and opponents alike, while archaeologists themselves remained relatively silent on the issue.

(Mehmet Masum Süer)

Mostly, archaeologists accept the trade-off between development and salvage archaeology: we get some scraps of data before the site gets destroyed. Hasankeyf raises the question of where to draw the line: it’s the last major free-flowing stretch of either the Tigris or Euphrates in Turkey, and is inarguably a site of major archaeological significance. Is there a point where we as archaeologists should stop accepting development plans, and protest instead? (And what are the criteria for doing so?)

There’s an excellent petition to declare Hasankeyf and the Tigris valley a World Heritage Site. You can sign it here.

Türkiye'de yaşayanlar Doğa Derneği üyesi burada olabilir. (Turkish residents can join the Doğa Derneği here.)

If you like environmental report evaluations (I confess, I do), German NGO WEED has done detailed critiques of the environmental impact reports and resettlement plans for Ilisu (German with some reports in English).

(Doğa Derneği)

1 Salvage work for the Southeast Anatolia Project dams has generated a large bibliography. Some highlights:

Algaze, G. (1989) A new frontier: first results of the Tigris-Euphrates Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, 1988. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 48:241-281.

Arık, M.O. (2001) 1999 Excavations at Hasankeyf. In N. Tuna, J. Öztürk, and J. Velibeyoğlu, eds. Salvage Project of the Archaeological Heritage of the Ilısu and Carchemish Dam Reservoirs – Activities in 1999. Ankara: METU Historic Environment Research Center.

Kennedy, D., ed. (1998) The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates. Rescue Work and Historical Studies. JRA Supplemental Series 27. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Özdoğan, M. (1977) Lower Euphrates Basin 1977 Survey. İstanbul: Middle East Technical University.

Tuna, N., J. Öztürk, and J. Velibeyoğlu, eds. (2001) Salvage Project of the Archaeological Heritage of the Ilısu and Carchemish Dam Reservoirs – Activities in 1999. Ankara: METU Historic Environment Research Center.

The tomb of Zeynel Bey (Mehmet Masum Süer)

Monday News Roundup

Some quick items:

Roger Atwood has a great op-ed in the New York Times about the importance of involving local people in anti-looting efforts.

Another op-ed by Uri Avnery on the political repercussions of the excavations of “David’s Town” in Jerusalem by an ultranationalist group.

Vermont Archaeologists protest changes that could gut the state’s contract archaeology industry.

As the LA Times reports, Egypt has cut ties with the Louvre over its refusal to return five fresco fragments allegedly stolen from a tomb in Luxor in the 1980s – including suspension of the museum’s excavations at Saqqara. But is it revenge for Egypt’s candidate being rejected as UNESCO head?

Meanwhile, Egypt is increasing penalties for antiquities smuggling: the maximum is now life imprisonment.

09 October 2009

Adventures in colonial archaeology: a Senegalese regiment excavates at Gallipoli

Senegalese troupes de marine on the Western Front (WWI Color Photos)

World War I saw archaeologists on both sides drafted into war as interpreters and sometimes spies. As George Chase notes in the Classical Journal of 1916, this did not stop their careers:
Several members and former members of the French and British schools [of archaeology at Athens] have been assigned to service as interpreters with the expeditionary forces of the Entente Allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and have there found opportunities for investigation in the midst of military activities.
The same article reports a major excavation by French imperial troops during the Gallipoli Campaign/Çanakkale Savaşı). An almost unbelievable story of excavation under fire, it also shows how deeply archaeology was intertwined with the colonial globalization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Among the discoveries directly attributable to the war, the most interesting of which I have seen reports are those made on the peninsula of Gallipoli in the course of the unsuccessful attempt of the British and French troops to force the passage of the Dardanelles. In May, 1915, soldiers of the French expeditionary force, in digging trenches on the plateau of Eski-Hissarlik, a few miles from the extreme western end of the peninsula, came upon several tombs constructed of stone slabs. These were destroyed, but some of the contents, including vases and terra-cotta figurines, were preserved by the officers in command. Later, in June, a communication trench hit upon several sarcophagi near the same spot, and it was decided to attempt more careful exploration. The work had to be conducted very slowly, with not more than four men digging at any time, owing to the proximity of the Turks, whose suspicions would have been aroused by any considerable concentration of men.

From July 8 to August 22, the excavations were superintended by Sergeant Dhorme, a priest who, at the outbreak of the war, was a professor in the College of St. Joseph at Beyrut. He was afterward cited in the order of the day for having "dans une position avancée, soumise au bombardement ennemi, accompli sa tâche avec une ardeur inlassable et un mépris constant du danger" ["accomplished his task in a forward position, under enemy bombardment, with tireless zeal and constant contempt for danger"] — probably the first time this honor has ever been conferred for such services. From August 23 to September 26, the interprète stagiaire, J. Chamonard, a former member of the French School in Athens, took charge and prepared a general report for the Bulletin de correspondence hellénique; and a careful catalogue of the contents of the tombs was drawn up by Sergeant Courby, another former member of the school.

In spite of the unfavorable conditions, no less than 37 sarcophagi and 17 clay jars which had been used for burials were recovered. The objects collected included vases, ranging all the way from an Attic black-figured cylix to Hellenistic forms; some terra-cotta figurines of archaic style, especially figures of Demeter, others of Tanagra types, and many of the third and the second centuries B.C., with Aphrodite and Eros as the favorite subjects, similar to the figures found by Pottier and Reinach at Myrina in Aeolis; and jewelry of a rather cheap sort, mostly in bronze, glass paste, and shell. The necropolis dates from the sixth to the second century B.C. Still later, on October 7, the work was resumed, under the direction of Lieutenant Leune, and only abandoned with the withdrawal of the troops on December 12. Much of this later digging was carried on by Senegalese soldiers. More tombs were opened, and among the vases were found some Corinthian wares of the sixth century.
I’m not even sure how to describe my feelings on reading this passage. Senegalese soldiers, serving the French empire, excavate Classical tombs on the shores of the Hellespont while under artillery fire from Ottoman troops (led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in the campaign that made his reputation). It's a mashup of people, places, and institutions that says everything about the world created during the "long 19th century", in the midst of its collapse.

Senegalese troops unload ammunition at Gallipoli (Imperial War Museum Q61091)

It is presented as so normal, so logical, that an army in the midst of a vicious battle should spare time to conduct excavations. In one sense, the work was admirable: without the efforts of Chammonard, Dhorme, and Courby this necropolis would surely have been destroyed without a trace. Their monograph in the Bulletin de correspondance hellénique (1915, Vol. 39, pp.135-240) is meticulous in its description of tomb construction, burial practice, artifacts, and methodology. Yet in the whole 105 pages, there is barely more mention of the unusual circumstances of the excavation than Chase gives in the paragraphs above. The authors blandly note that the excavation often did not work a full day, since the Turkish bombardment got especially bad around 4pm each afternoon. Men must have been killed while excavating, but no mention is made of casualties.

This instance illustrates the smooth integration of archaeology into European imperial policy, the insane gung-ho attitude of World War I, and the extreme sense of entitlement that Europeans had in the last century. They could excavate whenever, wherever, in the most bizarre conditions, and report it as an ordinary event. (Actually, in historical context, it was: the intimate relationship between military conquest and archaeological exploration was especially pronounced in the case of France, which attached archaeologists to its military expeditions in Egypt (1798), Greece (1828-1833), and Algeria (1830-1850s).

My thoughts turn most to the Senegalese soldiers, and what they thought of their strange assignment. Mostly conscripts, they were ironically pawns in the struggle for African self-determination. Blaise Diagne, Senegal’s deputy in France’s national parliament, made a deal with the Empire: he would help conscript soldiers to defend Paris from the Hun, and in return Paris would grant full French citizenship to all residents of the Four Communes of Senegal. Unlike the British, the French allowed black troops to serve on the front line, and over 70,000 west Africans left their bones in the muddy trenches of Flanders. (For more, see here and here.)

In antiquity, Cape Helles had a shrine to the hero Protesilaos, whom Chase invokes (echoing Philostratos' Heroikos), to capture the strangeness of it all:
The town with which this graveyard was associated was very surely the Athenian colony of Elaeus, famous in antiquity for a mound which was believed to be the tomb of Protesilaus, the first Greek to fall in the expedition against Troy. One cannot but wonder what were the feelings of the shade of the hero, if he still haunts the region of his tumulus, as he watched these strange beings from Western Europe and Africa destroying the resting-places of those who, to him, must have been very modern inhabitants of the shores of the Hellespont.

Tetradrachm with head of Protesilaos from Skione, Macedonia (British Museum).

04 October 2009

Nero’s Dining Room?

Last week news of a curious discovery on Rome’s Palatine hill was in the news. French and Italian archaeologists have found a unique circular room that they speculate may have been Nero’s "rotating dining room”. The press is accepting this speculation as fact. But was it really?

Discovery reports:
Known as "coenatio rotunda", the circular room was found by French archaeologist Francoise Villedieu in the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”), the emperor’s sumptuous residence on the Palatine Hill.

Dating to the 1st century AD, the room has a diameter of over 50 feet (16 meters) and is 33 foot (10 meter) high.

It was supported by a 13 foot (4 meter) wide pillar, which was connected to the perimetral walls by a series of arches.

The room, whose structure is unprecedented, matches a description by the ancient historian Suetonius, who described Nero’s dining room as a circular, rotating, wooden-floored platform.
There’s a nice slide show with the Discovery article, and the BBC has video here complete with hyperbolic narration about archaeologists “dropping their trowels with amazement”. Readers of Italian readers can find a bit more sober coverage here.

The Soprintendenza’s website (Italian) provides more archaeological details, with a refreshing lack of hyperbole.

It’s certainly a weird room – 16 meters wide, with eight arched ribs, and a huge central pillar with small niches. The Soprintendenza suggests that it’s the right date, sometime between the fire of 64 and Nero’s damnatio memoriae at the beginning of the Flavian era. But let's look at the actual description that the find "matches".

Suetonius, in his Life of Nero, says that
There were dining-rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.
That last sentence is the key one, and is the source of the press' breathless excitement. But that's really all the evidence they have to go on. We're still waiting on answers to other questions, like:
Where is the wall decoration that one would expect? How is this room connected to other parts of the palace? How did the rotation mechanism work? If it was really water-powered, as the archaeologists speculate, where are the channels?

And, if I may be so bold, should we rely so much on one vague sentence in Suetonius? Suetonius’ Lives are full of gossip and rumor, animated by anti-imperial sentiment, and written over 50 years after Nero’s death. (Not to mention that the palace itself was buried by Suetonius’ time, so he never could have seen it.) It's an extremely fun book to read, but has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Mary Beard (whose blog is always worth a read) puts her finger on the problem, pointing out that our knowledge of Nero’s Golden House is still spotty and based largely on literary evidence:
does a big pillar really prove that we have got a rotating dining room... and what exactly rotated anyway?

I half suspect that no such thing as a rotating dining room existed. But even if it did, I still don't see why these remains really do reveal whatever it was that Suetonius was talking about.
It was once pointed out that digging is a pathology of archaeology. But this instance illustrates a much deeper and more destructive problem of the field: the frantic desire for ancient texts to be physically true. This leads to sloppy habits of interpretation, where huge, complex architectural features like this are “interpreted” by hanging them on one sentence in a sensationalist writer who never saw the building he was writing about.

Classical archaeology in particular has this vice, reflecting its roots as a discipline that started as the study of literature and took centuries to turn its attention toward excavation. For many Classical archaeologists the ancient texts, and the world they evoke, still remain “more real” than the archaeological evidence of Greek and Roman civilization. (I’m looking for postdocs so I can write a book on this very subject, so stay tuned for more on this.)

So, in short: I would love to know what this strange and interesting room was, and I will be thrilled if it turns out to have been a rotating room of any kind! But I’d like to see those conclusions drawn from archaeological evidence, and a little less breathless speculation from the Fourth Estate.